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The Greenwash Brigade

Is there room for Wal-Mart on the green bandwagon?

Heidi Siegelbaum Nov 16, 2007

In response to:

Making waves of green

All Wal-Mart has to do to have an impact on green products is place an order. Reporter Sarah Gardner caught up with some of its 60,000 suppliers at a conference that the retail giant held to talk about sustainability.

Heard on Marketplace,® Nov. 16, 2007

Heidi Siegelbaum’s take:

It’s a wonderful, yet tragic story. Wal-Mart, the world’s largest and most profitable company is going green and bringing its supply chain along for the ride. The benefits will be impressive, particularly if Wal-Mart retrofits all of its stores to make them energy efficient and their packaging reduction strategiesbear fruit. Goals include 100% renewable energy supply and cutting their carbon footprint by 20%. This is coupled with a targeted 30% increase in existing store efficiency and 25% reduction in solid waste.

Because Wal-Mart accounts for 10% of all retail sales, the positive multiplier effects from their environmental programs could be staggering. The sale of compact fluorescent bulbs will make a huge difference in energy use (who whudda thunk?) although it’s residential home design and heating/cooling retrofits that pack the biggest energy saving punch. Promoting employee adoption of environmental practices at home is also a very promising sustainability diffusion strategy, employing the notable “behavioral change commitment” approach.

However, there is also a niggling lipstick-on-a-pig story here. Wal-Mart footprints are Eee-normous 224,000 sq. ft. (at their non-Supercenter largest) for the retail space plus another 16 to 20 acres of pure, unadulterated asphalt parking lot per store. Compare this to the local Main Street retailer of 2,000 sq. ft. Parking lots and other hard surfaces are super energetic highways of pollution: Phosphorous, hydrocarbons, and heavy metals rush into nearby rivers, streams and bays, not to mention that they interrupt and reduce the supply of drinking water (can anyone say Atlanta?). Using a generous estimate of 413,000 gallons of polluted runoff for half the Wal-Mart parking lots from a single one-inch rain storm, times existing stores, times the anticipated increase in new store development, worst case scenario we could be looking at more than 7 million gallons of polluted runoff every
time it rains an inch.

We are losing forests, prairies, wetlands and other valuable forms of landscape to a sea of impervious surface that affects everything from water quality, water supply and carbon sinks to visual aesthetics and our mental
health. Carbon tax? We should think about adopting an impervious surface tax because the cost of every square foot of asphalt or concrete always outweighs its benefits.

This is not an unimportant story. Water pollution and water supply will be THE driving issue in this century because without it, there will be no Dow Jones, no deeply discounted consumer products. Consequently, we may find ourselves one day importing not only oil but drinking water, from other places around the globe, notably the very places where 80% of Wal-Mart products
are manufactured.

Wal-Mart’s environmental strategies, as promising and positive as they are, are unlikely to counteract their underlying business strategy, which calls for linear expansion and diversification into markets such as banking and cars, is inherently unsustainable. As we are inexorably driven into manufacturing inexpensive goods in overseas markets, we increase our carbon footprint considerably through shipping (which uses filthy bunker fuel), air freight and driving the unsustainable consumption of billions of plastic products manufactured using petroleum byproducts (not to mention lead). Perhaps Wal-Mart will remake itself one day in the style of the newly minted Corporation 2020 which completely shifts our thinking about businesses as serving the public rather than the obverse.

Janne K. Flisrand responds:

Heidi’s focus on asphalt parking lots leads right to one of my favorite topics — community design, and why it matters.

The way America plans our towns has left us with a world in which nearly everyone is mandated to own a car. We separate uses — housing, civic spaces, businesses, retail — all get their own place.

Try going somewhere without driving. Even if you are 1/4 mile from your destination, without direct connections between locations every trip has to go out of the way onto a big, fast street to get there. That makes reducing the 1/3 of American green house gas emissions from transportation tough — in new communities public transportation, walking and cycling aren’t broadly viable.

Until Wal-Mart (and other big box retailers) figure out other ways to build stores that fit a more walkable context (or until we stop shopping at them), we’re trapped behind the wheel. We may find ways to get cars moving without fossil fuels, but that won’t solve other problems:

  • the water problems Heidi described
  • use of energy and materials embedded in producing cars
  • obesity and inactivity
  • a transportation system that doesn’t work for people who don’t drive: children, people with health problems, and soon aging Baby Boomers
  • a loss of community (Do you stop to greet your neighbor as you drive down the street? When you walk down the street?)

Dennis Markatos-Soriano responds:

After celebrating the virtues of developing local economies yesterday, it’s funny to then applaud the efforts of the epitome of globalization, Wal-Mart. But it’s undeniable that this leading retailer can help transform the business world toward sustainability.

Though as Heidi said, Wal-Mart has a long way to go. From parking lots that threaten our water quality to pollution from the energy production for its stores and its goods manufacture, Lee Scott and others who promote
sustainability and energy efficiency have a lot to make up for. Over the next several years, if Wal-Mart wants to maintain/win the respect of the majority of the public who cares about the environment, they will have to push the
envelope beyond CFL lighting to promote other Energy Star appliances that can stabilize our energy consumption.

One idea that they could initiate is to put a carbon label on all of their products (like nutrition facts on foods). Such a label would give consumers the opportunity to reward producers that lower their greenhouse gas
emissions whether through efficiency, renewables, or more local production. If consumers respond, as they have with organics of late, such an initiative could mark a movement to more conscious consumerism. It could help low-
carbon technologies grow in market share by lowering their costs — unleashing climate progress by utilizing Wal-Mart’s signature, economics of scale.

Jim Nicolow responds:

Sustainability is a three-legged stool: social, environmental, and economic. Wal-Mart is a company that seems to have focused exclusively on economic performance. When I first heard murmurs of Wal-Mart embracing environmental performance I was highly skeptical, assuming they had made some token green gesture to offset the groundswell of negative press they were receiving at the time for poor social performance.

But their case is more complex. Wal-Mart is making legitimate improvements that will have significant positive environmental impacts (if you can call ëless bad’ positive). And what they do has a huge influence across the economy.

I doubt Wal-Mart is doing any of this to be nice. Waste is bad for profits as well as the environment. Maybe they recognize that sustainability is not a zero sum game. You can do the right thing for the environment AND improve the bottom line. If they focus on the social side before driving the last family store out of business, we could be in for some exciting times!

Heidi’s comments regarding water and water quality are important. Wal-Mart and other big box retailers could be doing far more to address this critical aspect of sustainability, such as including pervious paving and natural
stormwater management at all new sites. But that’s a subject for a future blog….

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